Rumours of a new Super League War are almost annual these days – and this week we’ve heard them again.
The 12 NRL clubs which are not financially controlled by League Central are reportedly reluctant to sign the new NRL participation agreement because of their disquiet over the management style of David Smith’s administration.
Of course, if they don’t sign the participation agreement, they don’t get a grant. And without a grant, most of the clubs would go to the wall.
Countering this concern, colleague Paul Kent said the clubs could stay in the NRL, cop their grant, and field an under-strength team while simultaneously competing in their own competition which they ran themselves.
While all of this may appear rather unlikely, it raises fascinating questions in regard to where the sport is – financially and culturally – in 2015 in comparison to 1995.
The clubs don’t like the fact that, to their way of thinking, they generate the $1 billion the NRL gets from TV rights yet the David Smith administration wants them to jump through multiple hoops to get their hands on that money.
Penrith general manager Phil Gould recently said on Twitter that the NRL club grant, which is enough to pay each club’s entire NRL playing wage bill, should be doubled. They argue that trying to turn each club into an American-style franchise doesn’t work when they all have very different ownership structures, strengths and weaknesses.
The NRL argues that it doesn’t just represent the clubs. They might provide the product each weekend that gets the cash registers ringing, but the Commission has a responsibility to the game as a whole and the clubs – morally, at least – do as well. Putting money in players’ pockets, and stockpiling juniors, is not in the best interests of a sport trying to survive in a competitive market, from a central administration perspective.
It’s important to remember that players, clubs and administrators have always had conflicting motivations. The game was born from a fight over money – even if it was ‘broken time’ for injured players – and seems doomed to forever have that argument, at every level, in every corner of the world where it is played.
Everyone in rugby league is permanently disgruntled. But it’s only when someone comes along and gives disgruntled parties some cash that we get actual schism.
In the mid-nineties, it was the arrival in Australia of pay television. It is hard to see a similar catalyst at the moment.
Are Netflix going to show Parramatta versus Penrith in 2017? They’ve said they’re not too interested in live sport at this stage. Would an app or a streaming service offer clubs enough money to underwrite a breakaway competition?
The only thing that might happen is that TV stations which miss out on the next NRL rights might show interest in a breakaway comp. But wouldn’t that be left-over footy for left-over broadcasters? Hardly likely to enthral the public.
The impetus is missing – in which case everyone will just stay angry, as it has always been, and we’ll get on with life.
But there is a second way to look at this – as an opportunity for the NRL to achieve some objectives that seemed otherwise just too hard.
Bid teams all over the place are lining up to enter the NRL. If someone holds off signing the club agreement, could they not find themselves replaced?
If there are too many teams in Sydney, could the NRL not just cut the most rebellious of them adrift? While it is 12 clubs against four, it’s going to be hard to do something like that – but the clubs’ unity over the next 18 months is going to be tested.
League Central is now full of corporate high fliers, political lobbyists and super-smart strategists. They may not know as much about rugby league as they should, but they are all intimately familiar with the expression ‘divide and conquer’.